Sufjan Stevens’ track “Romulus,” off of his 2003 album Greetings from Michigan the Great Lake State, sparkles with its vulnerable meditations on parenting. Stevens whispers confessions about a strained relationship between child and mother, one filled with shame, guilt, and confusion, yet also gratitude. Japanese Breakfast’s cover of the song for SiriusXMU Sessions puts this vulnerability on display.
Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s a favorite a cappella cover?
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
I should probably start this with a pop music true confession: the first Joni Mitchell album I ever bought and listened to in full was 1974’s Court And Spark, and the sole reason I purchased it was because I’d heard Prince, whom I was obsessed with (this was the early ’80s), say that he loved it and thought she was a genius (or something to that effect). Basically, if the person who made my #1 favorite album (Purple Rain) with my # 1 favorite song (“I Would Die 4 U”) loved her, there had to be a reason, and I needed to know what that reason was. I bought the album, and by the time I’d finished playing it, like most humans upon exposure to Joni, I’d been transformed into a complete devotee, snarfing up every album and playing them endlessly forever. That Prince, he knew what he was talking about.
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Joni Mitchell is 75 and won’t be with us forever. She suffered an aneurysm in 2015, and she’s coping with the little-understood Morgellons disease. She has difficulty walking, and has not spoken publicly in years. But if her place on earth is tenuous, her place in the heavens is secure; millions of people already look up to her every day.
Joni Mitchell’s songs are famous for being intensely personal, a deep expression of her self that people nevertheless relate to. Those who aspire to her voice become near-slavish devotees. There’s a great New Yorker piece about a small show of Joni’s that a drunken Chrissie Hynde gets overly caught up in (“That’s a REAL singer up there!”), and Hynde’s not alone. Mitchell isn’t just a real singer, though. She’s a real songwriter, a real painter, a real guitarist, a real follower of her muse – a real artist, one of the realest of the past hundred years. That authenticity is what continues to bring people into her circle on a daily basis.
In an excellent essay for NPR, Ann Powers wrote: “Like her prime compatriots Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and her favorite protégé Prince, no one can adequately echo her; even great singers, taking on her songbook, admit they can only hope to achieve proximity.” Indeed, a Joni Mitchell cover is never just a tribute – it’s an assertion, an artist coming forth to pick up a gauntlet she lay down decades ago.
We found 30 covers that show the artists doing an especially good job at matching their talents to Joni’s, creating new works of art that, no matter how novel or innovative they may be, never set out to eradicate the original artist’s signature. May her art continue to open eyes, whether through her own performances or those of others, for centuries to come.
–Patrick Robbins, Feature Editor